By Christine Reslmaier
”Find someone who enjoys science and is doing great work, who has a great sense of what is important, who knows how to ask incisive (and answerable) questions of nature. Work with them. Emulate them. Don't compete in the Olympics of who's more disadvantaged than whom. Enjoy the work. Enjoy the discovery. Learn to write well so you can influence people in the years to come.”
Clifton Poodry, Ph.D., Director, Division of Minority Opportunities in Research National, National Institutes of Health
Clifton Poodry was born in Buffalo, New York, on the Tonawanda Seneca Indian reservation, where poverty was just a part of life as he knew it. There wasn't much concern about a proper education, and his mother only hoped that Poodry would graduate from high school. He didn’t know much beyond the path of getting a job, any job, to make some money for his family. ‘It is a fortunate few who have clear career aspirations from early in life,” he has written. As a teenager, Poodry worked as a farmhand, picking cherries and potatoes. He got fired for throwing potatoes at the farmer’s cows, so he got work as a busboy, which made him think that he had to do something more than work at restaurant.
”I think that I have always been curious and wanted to know how things work,” Poodry says. “Certainly by age 14 or15 I was interested in chemistry, mainly because I was interested in rockets and explosives. I liked biology and liked dissecting a cat in high school.”
His mother inspired him to follow his interest in science and mathematics. She had scored 100 percent on the New York State test in geometry when she was a student, and told him he was just as capable. Unfortunately, his mother never got to pursue her academic goals. She wanted to be a teacher, but didn’t have the money to get the proper training. Instead, she worked as a cleaning lady.
Things were to turn out different for her son. Poodry was accepted at the University of Buffalo, only 30 miles away from his family. He was amazed at the quality of life on campus, including running water and tons of food. He couldn’t believe it when people from more traditional backgrounds complained about the amenities as being awful. But he had a rough time adjusting to his new life. In high school got by with good grades without much studying, but college was a wake-up call. He seemed more interested in football and hanging out, and his grades showed it. He thought he was going to major in chemistry, but he switched to biology in his senior year because he was getting A’s in bio classes.
In the summers during college, he worked days painting houses and nights as a restaurant cook: together about 75 to 80 hours a week, and saved enough money to work less during the school year. Meanwhile, he decided to pursue a career as a high school science teacher, but knew he needed more education himself. On the advice of a mentor, Poodry went after a master’s degree in biology, (also at the University of Buffalo) rather than in education. There, he decided to stick with being a research scientist and went on to Case Western University in Ohio where he was mentored by Howard Schniederman, a successful developmental biologist who had a large research lab with students from many different ethnic backgrounds.
The focus of Poodry’s research was studying how cells were organized and how they develop structures in the body, using the fruit fly as a model. After getting his Ph.D., he began teaching at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and stayed there until starting his current role as the director of the Minority Opportunities in Research Division at the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland. The goal of his division is to increase the number of underrepresented minority students who go into research, with programs for students at all levels, including high school.
”Identifying a favorite project is very difficult because I have enjoyed a great deal of excitement with most of my projects,” says Dr. Poodry. “I am very proud of my papers published from my graduate student days but then I am just as proud of papers done with the students in my lab. As an administrator I am proud of having invented the minority supplement program at the National Science Foundation in the early ‘80s. I am also very excited about the possibilities presented by new initiatives we have developed recently at NIH.”
You won’t always find Poodry in a lab or office, though. Since 1995, he has been passionate about turning wood. He had purchased a lathe for his wife, but he became so enamored of the hobby himself that she never got the chance to use it. He took a class in the craft to improve his skills and his woodcrafts have become both works of art and functional objects; his specialty is bowls. Some are made of wood downed at NIH, and his finished products are often sold at the Audubon Fair in December and at the Gallery of Mountain Secrets in Monterey, Virginia. He donates the proceeds from bowls made from NIH wood to the Children's Inn. He gives the remaining bowls as gifts to family members.
”There are still many challenges in the area of minority student development but my interests probably lie more generally in education,” he says. “I aspire to become a really good teacher some day. I also aspire to become a recognized wood artist.”
JGH is supported by the Center for Study of Gene Structure and Function (Gene Center) at Hunter College of The City University of New York (CUNY).
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